At first glance, the red-brick facade near a line of railway arches resembles an ordinary south London warehouse.
A more careful observer might notice spiked railings, a steel door, and imposing metal gates through which lorries come and go.
On a cold February day in 2014, a precious cargo left this small fortress: a spectacular and unconventional nude by the painter Lucian Freud. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, a study of one of his most celebrated models snoozing on a well-worn sofa, the folds of her flesh filling the canvas, is recognised as a modern masterpiece.
Bought at a New York auction in 2008 by the oil and gas oligarch Roman Abramovich for $33.6m (£26.5m), it was now emerging from storage, to be displayed in his mansion at Kensington Palace Gardens, a few miles across London.
paid for Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud
Most art lovers could only dream of wielding such power. But for Abramovich, the work was a mere fragment of a hoard of paintings and sculptures that the billionaire former owner of Chelsea football club could order up for private enjoyment at homes in England and the south of France or aboard his yacht, the $700m Eclipse.
The Guardian can reveal that during an extraordinary spending spree, spanning nearly a decade, Abramovich and his ex-wife, the US-based collector Dasha Zhukova, acquired what experts believe is one of the most significant private collections of modern art ever assembled, a trove of more than 300 pieces whose worth was estimated by the oligarch’s own assessors at almost $1bn.
“You could fill a museum with it; this is a stupendous collection,” said Andrew Renton, the professor of curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“It’s not the vulgar collection of a nouveau riche; it shows very good taste. If you have enough money, you can buy a piece of history.”
The details have come to light thanks to the Oligarch Files, a leak from the Cyprus-based offshore financial services provider MeritServus, analysed in collaboration with the OCCRP and other international media partners. MeritServus was placed under sanctions by the UK government in April, after the Guardian reported on its work for Abramovich and other oligarchs.
The discreet art world has long known Abramovich and Zhukova as big spenders. But until now, public awareness of what they collected was limited. There is no public gallery, like the museum created by the US tycoon Jean Paul Getty, to display their works.
The files reveal a collection that catalogues the history of modern art, featuring pieces by the greatest Russian, European and American masters. Works by Monet and Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso, Russian modernists such as Natalia Goncharova and Véra Rockline, a sampling of surrealist canvases by Magritte, and a bold selection of abstract work.
Striking contemporary possessions include acclaimed paintings by Freud, Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney.
In the days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the files appear to show, Abramovich’s interest in the trust that ultimately owned the pieces was reduced, leaving Zhukova as the majority beneficiary, courtesy of a deed signed by the trustees.
The deed did not require Zhukova’s knowledge or consent and is understood to have derived from the terms of her separation from Abramovich in 2016.
It took effect in February 2022, just days after the UK government warned Kremlin-friendly oligarchs that their assets could be seized.
For years, while Russian oligarchs treated London as their playground, many of the pieces were housed near the banks of the Thames in Vauxhall, a few streets away from the headquarters of Britain’s MI6 spy agency.
Now, with Vladimir Putin’s war entering its 20th month, and Abramovich under sanctions in the UK and the EU, a jewel of the modern world’s cultural heritage remains in limbo.
From the avant garde to oligarch
In autumn 1930, the avant garde artist Kazimir Malevich was arrested and threatened with execution.
Born in Kyiv when it was still part of the Russian empire, Malevich was a pioneer of abstract art, the figurehead of the Suprematist movement.
Under the brutal rule of Joseph Stalin, he fell victim to a sustained and vicious campaign against modernist art, condemned by the Communist party as bourgeois.
After his death, the fate of his works played out over nearly a century, first hidden from the Nazis for safekeeping, then transported around the globe, to the Netherlands and the US.
Heirs of the painter fought battles for the return of his canvases.
One piece, Suprematist Composition, circa 1919-20, was put up for auction in 2000, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York was forced to hand it back. The buyer was never disclosed.
But by 2013, this emblem of Russian art and political history was in the hands of Abramovich.
The work’s more recent travels are revealed by invoices for transportation to and from the warehouses of a British art storage specialist called Martinspeed, which has since been renamed Crozier Fine Arts.
“Crozier is a long-established company with global operations. It is our policy and practice to comply with the laws in the countries where we do business,” a spokesperson said.
Like Freud’s canvas, the Malevich crisscrossed the Thames to and from the oligarch’s home, and in 2014, was sent down the riverbank to the Tate Modern on loan for a retrospective.
The label next to the canvas, an arrangement of black and red rectangles that for Malevich symbolised the building of a new reality, simply stated “private collection”, a common practice when lenders wish to remain anonymous.
US abstract painter Cy Twombly’s Untitled Roma was among other works summoned out of storage, as were works by Auerbach and the Scottish painter of ironic pastorals Peter Doig.
Abramovich could enjoy his collection not just in London but on his yacht, and at Château de la Croë, his 1920s mansion on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula of the Côte d’Azur, an erstwhile retreat for the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
Dozens more exquisite pieces, some worth millions, were imported and exported internationally, by air and truck, through Geneva, Moscow, New York and Liège.
The project management required to oversee such a well-travelled collection was costly. But it paled in comparison with the expense of acquiring it.
Documents reviewed by the Guardian suggest that, as of 2018, Abramovich had amassed 367 pieces, valued at $963m.
value of the collection, which included more than 300 pieces
The staggering expense yielded rewards beyond the pictures themselves, for the collection could only have helped elevate Abramovich and Zhukova to the pinnacle of the international art scene.
Art world aristocracy
In June 2008, the year of their marriage, the couple hosted the official launch of their new venture, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in the Russian capital, a new gallery initially housed in a disused Soviet bus depot, a project funded by Abramovich.
The artist Jeff Koons was among the guests of honour, according to reports at the time, mingling with a glittering crowd sipping Ruinart champagne, as Amy Winehouse performed a private concert.
Zhukova unveiled an installation by the Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer – an interactive tree made up of thousands of lights, pulsating to the rhythm of her own heartbeat. Abramovich looked on proudly, and, later, the couple danced.
The daughter of a Moscow oil trader, Zhukova’s parents separated when she was a child and she grew up in America. The ease with which she navigated elite social circles, and her knowledge of art, combined with Abramovich’s wealth, have helped cement her position among the great and the good of the art world.
Today, alongside her stewardship of the Garage centre, she is a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unlike her former husband, from whom she separated in 2016, Zhukova – who has now remarried – is a US citizen and is not subject to sanctions in any jurisdictions. She has also condemned Russia’s “acts of war” in Ukraine.
Her two children with Abramovich were born in America, and she is raising her family there.
She also retains ties to her ex-husband through the collection, documents suggest.
The files, which run until March 2022, show that a company called Seline-Invest, originally incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and redomiciled in 2017 to Jersey, owned the pieces. It acquired them in 2017 and 2018 from the Harmony Trust, of which Abramovich was the sole beneficiary, via a series of 11 transactions.
Seline-Invest was in turn controlled by a Cyprus-based trust, the Ermis Trust Settlement, initially set up in 2010 for the sole benefit of Abramovich.
In January 2021, according to the documents, the trustees and protectors of the trust – a mixture of Abramovich’s employees and directors of MeritServus – made Zhukova an “additional” beneficiary, with their children becoming beneficiaries upon his death.
At that point, the former couple each held a 50% beneficial interest.
But on 4 February 2022, three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, the documents indicate that trustees and protectors made a change, one that experts believe may have been prompted by the looming threat of sanctions.
percentage of the Ermis Trust’s distributions to which Zhukova became entitled in February 2022
Via a “deed of amendment”, Zhukova became “irrevocably entitled to 51%” of the trust’s distributions, the documents state. Abramovich was relegated to a minority beneficiary with 49%. A subsequent deed, from late February, barred Abramovich from increasing his interest.
Less than a month later, on 10 March, Abramovich was hit with sanctions by the UK, leading to the freezing of his assets, including Chelsea football club. The EU placed him under sanctions him soon after, and he is appealing against the decision, with his lawyers saying he was targeted for his prominence, not because he met the criteria. He has not been put under sanctions by the US.
Under EU, UK and US rules, any asset more than 50% owned by an individual under sanctions can be frozen.
“The 50% rule works slightly differently in different jurisdictions,” said Tom Keatinge, the director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
“But under any version of the rules, it would have been attractive to reduce the interest of a trust beneficiary who was likely to be sanctioned.
“A lot of this was happening in the run-up to the war, in the hope of keeping assets out of reach of sanctions authorities.”
“It’s a very common practice,” said another expert specialising in EU sanctions law, who asked not to be named.
“This has always happened [when sanctions are imposed] but the scale has never been so big and now it has become a national security matter for Europeans.”
Abramovich declined to comment.
There is no suggestion that Zhukova has ever taken any steps designed to undermine sanctions, including in connection with the collection. The art was owned by the trust, rather than by her, and she could not make decisions on its behalf. The Guardian understands that no pieces from the collection have been sold or disposed of since the change of beneficial interest in February last year.
Zhukova has publicly condemned the invasion, stating immediately after the outbreak of hostilities: “As someone born in Russia, I unequivocally condemn these acts of war, and I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as well as with the millions of Russians who feel the same way,” she said.
She declined to comment on the record.
A collection that looks like a billion dollars
When Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was sold at auction in 2017 for $450m, its buyer, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, set a new world record.
At the centre of the landmark deal was the renowned art expert Sanford Heller, who had advised the seller, another Russian multibillionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev.
With offices in New York and Paris, Heller is one of the art world’s great fixers, arranging loans to exhibitions and guiding the wealthiest collectors towards pieces that will burnish their connoisseur credentials.
In 2011, the documents show, Heller’s firm was hired by Abramovich’s Cyprus-based Harmony Trust on an annual $500,000-a-year retainer, starting a relationship that would endure for six years.
A contract between the trust and Heller Group, found in the files, states the firm would provide “recommendations for the purchase and sale of art” and even had the right to act for the trust at auction.
Even before Heller came on board, Abramovich – with Zhukova by his side – was willing to spend big, splashing more than $100m in a single weekend in 2008.
The day after acquiring Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, they bought Bacon’s Triptych, snapped up at Sotheby’s for $86m, a record for a postwar work.
paid for Francis Bacon’s Triptych at Sotheby’s
And with Heller’s expertise on call, the spending continued. At least 10 pieces in the collection were either bought for, or valued at, more than $25m.
War is a theme that returns time and again in the works that they assembled.
Bacon’s Triptych, which the artist said was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel about colonial violence, Heart of Darkness, is one of his bleakest allegories of the modern condition, in which a bird pecks at human innards between two looming, fascistic faces.
There is also a stark standing figure by Giacometti, representing humanity after the Holocaust, alongside Anselm Kiefer’s melancholy reflections on 20th century conflict.
Now that war has returned to Europe, a question mark hangs over the status of the collection.
Where it resides now is not publicly disclosed. There are no recent records in the files of its important works being loaned to galleries. The company that managed paperwork for the trust and provided some of its directors, MeritServus, is under sanctions and its website has been taken down.
The last public loan appears to have been between July and October 2021, when two works by Rego were shown at her Tate Britain retrospective.
In October 2022, when Britain’s National Gallery opened the first major Lucian Freud exhibition in 10 years, pieces from the Abramovich-Zhukova collection were conspicuously absent. The collection is not subject to an asset freezing order, meaning that in theory, works could be bought, sold and loaned. However, Abramovich’s sanctions meant a loan agreement with the Ermis Trust could not go ahead, the Guardian understands.
“It is regrettable that the trust that holds these works seems unable to lend them,” said the author and art market expert Georgina Adam.
“These sanctions were imposed for good reason. Now, the consequence of Mr Abramovich’s investment in art is that the public are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy some of the greatest modern and contemporary works.”